QZ qz thoughts
a blog from Eli the Bearded

Public Transit Adventures

Yesterday was a memorable ride on the F line in San Francisco. It prompts me to think about the times in the past a ride has been memorable for the wrong reasons. I've been using public transit regularlly since 1987 or so. First buses to school (NYC MTA), then LIRR for visiting home from college, then LIRR to subway (NYC MTA) for work. Then I moved and it changed to just subway to work. Then I moved and changed jobs and it was bike to work for a few years. Then work moved and it was walk to work, and then I moved for the final time and it was bike to BART and bike from BART. After that I've had a few jobs, for which it has been various SF MTA light rail. Overall it's been about 28 of the last 33 years riding public transit at least four times a week: two cities and four systems.

And over all that time, it has been largely fine. The occaisional delayed train, strike, super slow traffic, but while annoying at the time, those are not incidents that are particularly memorable.

So what do I remember? Oldest to newest, just a few things really stand out.

First incident. On the N train in NYC (note what was N then, is R now: Astoria, Queens to Fincial District, Manhattan). The train was extremely packed, in ways I rarely see in SF. All seats taken, standing room shoulder to shoulder packed in like those sardines one hears about. In the middle of this, one homeless guy has a seat close to a door.

And then he starts to vomit.

Suddenly everyone near this guy finds a way to move further away. There's enough extra space to give this guy his own five foot radius of empty space. It really sticks with me how people's very attenuated need for personal space can be even more tightly constrained very quickly in the face of something unpleasant.

Second incident. Waiting on the platform of the West Oakland BART station, a guy is standing near where the doors to the next train will open (BART is one of those systems that tries to position trains exactly in the stations and has platforms marked for where the doors will be.) The guy waiting is wearing headphones and probably can't hear much around him. A big guy comes up the escalator, walks over to this waiting guy and throws a basketball right at the back of the head of headphone guy. When headphone guy turns around, basketball guy acts like it was an accident and he's sorry. I still don't know if the two of them had a history, or it was just some random act of rage.

Third incident. Of all of them, this is easily the most minor. A medium packed BART car in the long tube between West Oakland and Embarcadero, San Francisco. I got on MacArthur and the train has filled up around me. At one end of the train someone enters from the next car and starts singing (rapping maybe you could call it) very loudly. The song (rap) is all about how good this guy is and how much white people suck. West Oakland is a predominantly African American neighborhood and I immediately suspect someone who got on there and is just angry about unequality. After about five minutes of this, I catch sight of the guy. It's an Asian American with his eyes closed and headphones on as he sings his song of insult.

Fourth incident. Riding the F line in San Francisco. This is surface light rail line which aims for (but does not always have), 100% historic train cars. Each car has a short history about it, some were original to San Francisco, some from other places. All are painted to match the "livery" colors of different systems at different times. You can see a San Diego train followed by a Milan one on this line. It runs, above ground, the same route between Castro St and the Embarcadero as the below ground K, L, and M lines. It makes it a useful alternative to those. Usually street traffic and additional stops make the F line slower, but there are enough days with switching problems in the subway it's worth considering. And unless the underground trains are terrible, it's usually less crowded.

The people who ride it regularly do skew heavily towards tourists and homeless, though. Fare enforcement is much more lax at the surface stops of all SF MTA trains. The stations have fare gates, while the above ground stops do not, and rear door boarding — where there is no staff member present — is allowed. Further, SF MTA runs on a "one payment is good for 90 minutes of travel" system. If you have a valid transfer, you are not obligated to do anything special when boarding. To get into a station with a transfer, you have to show it to a station agent. So the system is very easy to cheat by those inclined to travel without paying for it.

So one evening, heading towards the Castro end of the line, an extremely foul smelling passenger boarded. This is someone who has clearly been living on the streets a long time, he smells like a toilet, and he dropped something so that it block the door from closing when he got on. And he sits right behind the driver.

She (the driver) complains loudly about the thing he dropped and the smell he emits and refuses to drive. She demands that he get off the train and clear the door. This guy refuses. And she insists again. After a while the detente is broken by two things happening. Someone else moves the thing blocking the door and the smelly guy moves to a seat a little further from the driver.

Fifth incident. This is the one that prompts the post, it happened yesterday on the F line, again heading towards Castro. Somewhere around Powell St — a major tourist stop — a guy boards the train with a guitar. He might be homeless, or he might be poor. But there is someone else on the train who aparently knows him. Seated right across the aisle, this older bald guy starts loudly insulting and taunting guitar guy. The driver starts to insist bald guy get off, and threatens to call the police, but the driver checks in with guitar guy who says it's alright to let the bald guy stay.

Bald guy quiets down, but still is quietly keeping up his torrent of insults and taunts. This continues for several stops, the simmering tension seemingly under control. Then guitar guy exploding with fury stands and hits bald guy in the face with the guitar two or three times. The bald guy kicks back, ineffectually. The driver stops and stands up, guitar guy sits back down and bald guy starts talking louder again.

Other passengers near the front of the car move back. Someone near the back of the train askes for the backdoor to be opened. The driver glares at both of the guys, then asks bald guy if he is okay and getting an assent asks guitar guy to keep it together. Then the driver continues on to the next proper stop. Bald guy gets off the front door, a small trickle of blood dripping from his forehead, and a bunch of other people get off the back door.

The train continues on it's way and a stop or two later guitar guy gets off. Then a passenger near the front, who had not moved away from the altercation, starts talking to the driver about the incident. No, the driver doesn't see this sort of thing often, is the brunt of the response. Finally at the last stop, everyone left starts to get off. The driver has stood up again and warns people exiting the front door to "Watch your step for the blood." It's quite literally just a couple of drops on the floor, but still an announcement I've never heard before on a train.